Miami Pilot Boat Underway With Maersk Kentucky

Pilotage: Local Places and Tight Spaces

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May 22, 2017

Miami Pilot Boat Underway With Maersk Kentucky. Photo by John Konrad

By Capt. George H Livingstone,

One could make the argument that international marine transportation is the singular thread running throughout the world.  It is wonderfully complicated, layered and diverse; a fascinating business.  Ships have been sailing the ocean trades for thousands of years along with the people who manned them.  A Mesolithic (10,000-5,000 BC) boatyard was recently discovered on the Isle of Wight along with wheat DNA indicating “Hunter gatherers” in Britain were importing wheat long before ever farming it themselves.  Confirming maritime trade has been active as far back as at least 7,000 years ago.

Tug-boats Illustrated: History, Technology, Seamanship by Paul Farrell
Related Book: Tugboats Illustrated: History, Technology, Seamanship by Paul Farrell
The Egyptian’s, Phoenician’s, Persian’s, Greeks, Chinese, all developed extensive trade routes throughout the ancient world.  By the time Jesus was walking the hills of Galilee, sea trade was already ancient.  Ancient sea trade did not, however, translate to safe sea trade.  Although transport by sea was cheaper than by land there was far greater risk in it.  So much so that superstition and luck became an part of maritime trade.  One of the riskiest parts was operating in and around ports.  If a vessel was lost on the rocks of some foreign harbor, all was lost for the owner, trader and crew.  One solution found to mitigate risk was to seek out individual local experts to help safely guide vessels in the various harbors, bays and rivers that were called upon.  These experts were usually local fishermen who knew the waters well having expert local knowledge.  Thus was the beginning of ship piloting as a profession.  By the middle ages, local pilots had become so indispensable that they could find themselves absconded by foreign armies looking to safely land invasion fleets.

Modern Piloting

Modern maritime piloting is occasionally challenged by some within and outside of the marine transportation community.  One of the wisest people I have ever known once commented that when faced with challenges to one’s person, beliefs, or profession, don’t defend, don’t attack, define.

Today in every major port in the world there is a group of professional mariners, pilots, typically operating under very old laws governing the movement of ships in bays, rivers and harbors.  

The real numbers of pilots are very small compared to the entire international marine transportation workforce.  For example, in the United States there are less than 1,500 pilots guiding ships in and out of American ports.  Although not a large number, those pilots offer significant beneficial impacts in the areas of safety and commerce both vital to national interest, the same holds true worldwide.  


Ultra Large Container Ship
Figure 2 CMA CGM’s 16,000TEU Ultra Large Container Ship (400m) M/V Benjamin Franklin. Photo by John Konrad

“Whether described as ‘indispensable cogs in the transportation system of every maritime economy’ or as ‘hoary figures’1, pilots have one of most challenging jobs in the maritime world.”2 Those very few American pilots, for example, collectively guide hundreds of billions of dollars of cargo safely into port and ultimately to the American consumer.  Internationally it’s in the trillions of dollars.  Yet the public knows so very little about ship pilots.  

USCG Rear Admiral (ret) Brian Salerno described the profession as follows “Each day, pilots are asked to take all sizes and types of vessels through narrow channels in congested waters where one miscalculation could mean disaster.  They are highly trained professionals, whose individual judgements must be spot on for the hundreds of decisions they must make at every turn to bring a vessel safely to it berth or out to sea.”  As to the hoary figures quote, there is no doubt that the piloting profession is not well understood by some.  That does not change the facts, regulations and laws about piloting, nor the need to safeguard The Public Trust.

The Law and Pilots

The United States Supreme Court weighed in on the subject describing a pilot as follows: “In order to avoid invisible hazards, vessels approaching and leaving ports must be conducted from and to open waters by persons intimately familiar with the local waters.  The pilot’s job generally requires that he or she go outside the harbor’s entrance in a small boat to meet incoming ships, board them and direct their course from open water to the port.  The same service is performed for vessels leaving the port.  Pilots are thus indispensable cogs in the transportation system of every maritime economy.”3

Pilot Ladder Ship Boarding
Capt Livingstone boarding a large container ship via pilot ladder.

As a professional pilot working in a small community I am admittedly biased in favor of my chosen profession and colleagues.  However, that does not translate to blindly supporting substandard pilots; there is no room in this business for unprofessional pilots or captains, etc.  Our stock in trade is to deliver safely and deliver we must.

The facts are that a very small number of highly trained and skilled professionals worldwide are responsible for (and do) safely guide thousands of ships every day, year round, in all conditions, contributing trillions of dollars to the world’s economy.  They are subject-matter-experts working in local places and tight spaces in a ‘personally dangerous’ environment.  Pilots understand the responsibility is greater than self-interest, and in fact, embraces The Public Trust and are proud to be a positive contributing factor in the greater international marine transportation system.


1Bach v. Trident Steamship, 1991 AMC 928 (5th Cir. 1991)                                                                                                                               2Rear Admiral Brian M Salerno
3Kotch, 330 U.S at 557-8 (emphasis added)

“Unique Institutions, Indispensable Cogs, and Hoary figures: Understanding Pilotage Regulation in the United States” University of San Francisco Law Review by Paul G. Kirchner (Executive Director-General Counsel American Pilots’ Association) and Clay Diamond (Deputy Director-Associate General Counsel APA) 

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